Thursday, July 3, 2008

Westchester Guardian.

Jeff Deskovic

Catch 22: Obstacles The Wrongfully
Convicted Face Upon Release From Prison

I spent 16 years in prison obsessing over how to prove my innocence and thus regain my freedom. I thought about every conceivable way that there was, while pursuing each idea and method to the extent that I could. In order to keep my sanity, and keep myself going, at times I would daydream about being free; what my life would be like, the things that I would do, and how I would automatically fit right back in to society and begin living the life I thought most people did.

The image would dangle in front of my mind about the life that the average, reasonable man was living. He had a nice place
to live in a good neighborhood, a good job, with reasonably good financial condition, friends, social life, family relations, a wife
or someone he was serious about, doing fun things, going on vacations, and generally being well balanced.

Not only did I think that upon release I would be living that life, but I also believed that I would be at the same point others
my age were. I would not have to begin things at the bottom, and work my way up, but rather, society would recognize the ordeal that I had just been through and thus would allow me begin things at the point at which I would have been had my life never been disrupted.

Lastly, I thought that I would be able to relax for a little while, getting some much needed rest and relief after struggling to regain my freedom for 16 years while simultaneously navigating the non-stop obstacle course that some of the prisoners, prison guards, civilian staff, and prison authorities presented. I have met over seventy exonerees since I have been out of prison, and have continued to keep myself abreast of wrongful conviction literature and information, which frequently include interviews and quotes from those who have been exonerated. I have discovered my ideas of what life would be like once I was freed were not particular to me, nor were the realities and difficulties that I encountered once I was released.

We exonerees have found it to be most ironic that while we struggled in prison to clear our name, regain our freedom, and presumably exit to a happier life, that we have instead gone from one set of problems to a whole other set, mostly unanticipated. As a result, it is often difficult to pick up the pieces as we discover life is difficult, and often less than happy. It is not a matter of feeling sorry for oneself or having a bad outlook, but rather, that the positive outlook that “everything is going to be all right” is most often beaten down by hard, everyday realities that are too concrete and real. Consequently, although being free is far better than being in prison, the new problems are like going from the fire into the frying pan and hence, on some level,
like a Catch 22. Ironically, my reflections on these issues, attempting to throw some illumination on them for the sake of society
come in month 22 of my freedom.

I write hopefully not merely to inform, but also to inspire people to take corrective action. Neither the state nor the federal
government offers any assistance to the wrongfully convicted once they have been cleared and released. If after reading
this, citizens understand how morally wrong and unacceptable the circumstance is, hopefully they will contact Senators and
Assemblypersons, urging them to enact appropriate changes to the law to help ease the transition of wrongfully incarcerated persons back into society. In that regard, I urge readers to sign the petition on my website if you have not already done so. The petition contains measures that I, and others, are advocating for, designed not only to prevent wrongful convictions, but also to help ease transition from prison to society for those who are exonerated.
Those issues include, but are not limited to, the following:


Once they are released, housing is frequently a problem for the wrongfully convicted. Having a place to live is often the rst obstacle encountered. Some exonerees are fortunate enough to have family waiting for them that they can live with. Although frequently grateful to have family willing to open their homes, feelings of inadequacy, awkwardness, and the lack of independence are often attendant when adults who, by the natural cycle of life, should be living on their own, are compelled
to live with parents.

Scott Fappiano, who served 21 years in New York for Rape before being proven innocent, lives with his mother. He is back
in the same room that he occupied prior to his wrongful conviction. Alan Newton, who served 21 years, also for Rape, in New
York prior to being cleared, is fortunate in that a friend has been allowing him to stay in an apartment in Harlem. But for that
fact, he would have great difficulty.

Many others do not have family waiting for them because they have passed away. Such is the case with Willie Green, who
served 25 years for Murder in California before being cleared. In other circumstances, family members are not willing to allow the exoneree to live with them any longer. Occasionally, the exonerated are able to get subsidized housing. It is not because
they went through the ordeal that they did, but rather because they just happen to qualify through other life’s circumstances.

Various exonerees who I have spoken with, who wish to remain anonymous, have said that they are often unhappy with where
their housing is, and that they are not living in the neighborhood or town that they
would like to. The attitude that many of
them have had to deal with from those who work at such places is “Accept what you can get and be grateful for it. What are you complaining about; you’re free, aren’t you?” Various exonerees have told me that it is no small thing, after being imprisoned for many years, to then not be able to live where they would like. It leads to a feeling of not really being free. The commonality in all of these circumstances is that it is a far cry from having a nice place to live in a good area as each individual imagined while waiting to be liberated.

Financial Condition

Of course, feeling free goes beyond simply having housing in an area where one would like to live. There is also the element of being in reasonably good financial condition. There is the perception that the wrongfully convicted most often harbor that once they are released, they will quickly be able to transition into reasonably good financial condition by getting a good job and being on their way in no time. There are a variety of reasons why this most often does not happen. Michael Williams got a ten dollar check from Louisiana State officials the day he was released after serving 24 years in prison for an Aggravated Rape he did not commit. As absurd as it might seem to say, on a small level Williams got a head start on almost all exonerees. Incredibly, when most inmates are exonerated they walk out of prison with nothing.
It is difficult for the exonerated to get jobs. In an October 13th, 2004 article in USA Today, by Stephanie Armour, it was noted at the time that Dana Holland, who served eight years for Aggravated Criminal Sexual Assault that he did not commit, could not get a job. Often when exonerees do find jobs, they are low paying. That is because employers, in many instances, have not been willing to give someone a chance to show what they can do because they lack experience.

However, experience, though desirable, is not necessarily an essential element. What is truly essential is whether the person can do the job, or can be trained to do it within a reasonable amount of time. Therefore, the jobs that are often offered are low-paying jobs. Vincent Moto
served 11½ years in Pennsylvania for Rape before being cleared. As he mentions in the documentary After Innocence, the state took away his prime earning years. The jobs he now gets are always low-paying, and he is still struggling to this day. Often, the wrongfully convicted don’t have the proper education to get a good paying job. I sat beside Roy Brown, at a legislative hearing, a man who served 15 years in New York for a Murder that he was proven innocent of. The hearing concerned the possible expansion of the DNA Database. Throughout the proceeding he repeatedly declared, “I don’t have much education.”

Sometimes lack of preparation for meaningful employment is coupled with learning disability or emotional problems, which stem from either pre- or post-wrongful conviction and incarceration. Byron Halsey served 19 years in New Jersey for two murders before being cleared. His lawyers said he had a sixth-grade education and severe learning disabilities. A man who owned a sign-making company felt compassion for
Halsey, and offered him a job making signs. Though I applaud him for doing more than what many potential employers would do,
Halsey is not making very much money. All of the above add up to the fact that being in good financial shape, having a good income coming in; disposable income to enjoy freedom, and being able to have money in the bank, and some measure of security, are often a fantasy.

Family Relations

In the psychological literature on the effects of wrongful conviction on prisoners, it will be found that it is often disruptive for both the family and the wrongly convicted individual to attempt to resume normal family relations, generally due to a variety of factors:

• The family got used to functioning without them;

• They are unsure of what to do or say around them, and vice versa;

• The person’s personality has changed;

Many of those who have been wrongfully convicted suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome, panic attacks, and anxiety. Ronald
Cotton, who served 10 ½ years in North Carolina for Rape before being cleared, reported that is afraid of being in crowds, due to the
violence that used to occur in prison when people were in crowds. Some of the prisoners viewed being in a crowd as an opportunity to stab, cut, or otherwise injure another unsuspecting prisoner and get away with it. These afflictions have the effect of changing a person’s personality, and thus impacting upon family interactions. The feeling of seeing family members that one last saw when they were young
children can be disorienting. Scott Hornoff, a former police officer who spent approximately seven years wrongfully convicted of a murder in Rhode Island before being proven innocent, said that he thought about picking his son up and holding him when he was cleared. Instead, by the time he was freed his son was tall enough to pick him up. Many report feeling frozen in time. Explaining to family members where
their relative has been, and why, has also proven to be difficult. Vincent Moto served 11½ years in prison in Pennsylvania for rape before being cleared. His daughter recounted not being able to understand why her father was incarcerated if he was innocent. Of course, some exonerees don’t even have the privilege of experiencing this with their family members. Some family members are just not able to reconnect. Barry Gibbs, who served 19 years in New York for a murder before he was proven innocent, mentioned in an interview that he does not have interaction with his family. Speaking of his son, he stated that he was grown up now and has his own life, and that he is not part of it.
Others, such as Willie Green of California, who served 25 years for a murder he did not commit, have had all of their relatives pass away while they were wrongfully incarcerated.

Social Life

By the time most wrongfully convicted people are released from prison, they have long since lost contact with all of their previous friends and associates. From what I have heard through my conversations with many other exonerees, it often is not possible to reconnect with former friends, for a variety of reasons: They have moved away and lost contact, with no other way to find them; they are unable to reconnect since both people are different people now with little in common other than a few memories from a long time ago. People from the past are not a source of people to socialize or do things with, or enjoy one’s new-found freedom with.

It is often difficult to meet new friends, if the exonerated person is not coming home to family members who are in the same age bracket and who can introduce them to others. Many people in society already have their lives, for the most part, in order, and have full plates in front of them. Thus, either there is no room, or others are unwilling to make room, for new activity partners. I have heard from some exonerees that
they are often alone. Out of the people who have talked to me about this problem, some have reported difficulty in having people who are able to relate to them since nothing in their background would give them a remote frame of reference by which to understand what it was like to be wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

Yet another factor is that there are some members of the public, who, despite realizing that the exonerated are in fact innocent, are nonetheless leary of socializing with them, or being “alone with them.” Lastly, there are a few, although a definite minority of exonerees,
whose experience of being wrongfully convicted has left them feeling isolated, out of place, and leery of interacting with others, out of fear that another false allegation might be levelled against them. These factors make the social life that most exonerees dreamed of while they were
incarcerated, unobtainable.

New Technologies

While wrongfully convicted prisoners are incarcerated, society is ever advancing technologically. Because the educational programs in prison tend to be inadequate and outdated, there is little or no attempt to keep inmates up to date on the latest advances. Thus, when released, being suddenly approached with unfamiliar technology can be disorienting and discouraging. It often takes quite a while to become fully brought up to speed, and has the effect of making the exonerated feel as though they are on a strange planet.

Solutions and Conclusions

It is clear that the life that many wrongfully convicted prisoners, while they’re incarcerated, dream of having, is not the life they are likely to have upon being released, at least not unless a lot of things change. I feel very strongly, from a moral perspective, that some things should be changed, so that the exonerated can enjoy whatever is left of their life that they must live. Let us remember that, and Ron Williamson, who after serving 12 years on death row in Oklahoma for a murder he was innocent of, only lived for five more years. Thus, a long future is not
promised to any of them. It will take a combination of changes from the government and from society to make things better, so that the Catch 22 no longer exists. The government should provided the wrongfully imprisoned with funds immediately upon release, totally separate from what is awarded by way of legal action, as a good faith effort to help get people back on their feet. It should be enough that they are allowed to live in whatever town or city they would prefer, and enough to live comfortably.

They should be provided services such as mental health and programs to teach them the new technologies that will help them gain basic life skills. Many such programs already exist, but are only available to those on parole. Thus, just a little more funding is all that would be needed to allow the resources to be available to enable the wrongfully convicted access to them as well. They should be provided with education
and health benefits, without question. In addition, lawsuits involving wrongful convictions should be fast tracked so that it does not take the current time frame of between two to seven years before the litigation process is completed. To make people wait that long, often in mere poverty, is to further unjustly punish.

The citizenry, for their part, should make some changes: Firstly, on a social level, they must make an effort to view exonerees the same way they might if the exonerated had never been wrongfully convicted. That means being open to interacting with them socially on all levels, judging them on the basis of their character. To do otherwise is to engage in a type of discrimination. On a financial level, employers should
be open to employing exonerees in well paying positions, so long as they are able to do the job required. They should be willing to provide some short-term training in those instances where it is needed. Finally, those in positions to hire have the ability and the moral obligation to, in effect, open a new chapter in a wrongfully incarcerated person’s life, and help them to get started.

Bruno Retirement May Open Door To Legislative Reform

I have been to Albany on five different occasions to lobby lawmakers to pass reforms to prevent wrongful convictions, and to keep the death penalty out of New York. Senator Bruno was the biggest obstacle to such reforms. Having been the Majority
Leader for 13 years and a member of the Senate for 32, he wielded an incredible amount of power. If he wanted to pass a bill, he could say so and his party would simply vote that way. Similarly, if he did not, he could bury bills in committee. It was always clear to me that he was the main obstacle to reforms. Though we never personally met, I constantly felt the shadow that his presence cast, and I always had the keen sense that I was working for a cause to which he was opposed.

During a few of my trips to lobby, I had a few off-the-record conversations with a number of Republican Senators, who told me that, although they were against the death penalty, they felt that they had to vote for it because they were afraid of what would happen to them. They feared being assigned to committees they did not want to be on, and being given fewer resources to work with. They feared they would not have been able to deliver much to their constituents and, thus, would be vulnerable during elections. All of these were tactics they said Bruno used to keep party members in line.

In 2007, in the wake of several state troopers having been murdered, Bruno seized upon the opportunity to make a big push to reinstate the Death Penalty. Given that the Governor at the time was Eliot Spitzer, who had expressed public support for the death penalty, it was a time of crisis. Under Bruno’s watch, not only was the Death Penalty passed despite some Senators having voiced concern for innocent people who might be executed given New York’s many wrongful convictions.

When Senator Schneiderman offered amendments to try to prevent wrongful convictions, including the videotaping of police interrogations, those bills were voted down. I testified at the Assembly Codes Committee when they were considering expanding the DNA Database, as well as other reforms to protect the innocent, those bills passed the committee and then the full Assembly, but died in the Senate because of Bruno.

During one of my trips to Albany I remember being told that Bruno had, a few days prior to my arrival, passed the Death Penalty several times in one session. His publicly stated purpose was supposedly to emphasize that New York State needed the death penalty, and that he was insisting that the Assembly pass it as well.

Bruno was the main obstacle to legislative protections against wrongful convictions. Now that he no longer has a grip on his party as he is no longer Majority Leader of the Senate, I can see a possible opening of the way for passage of reforms. Of course, it remains to be seen whether on-the-fence Republicans will now vote the way that they really feel, or, whether the new Majority Leader, Dean Skelos, will use similar tactics, or be of the same mentality as Bruno.

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